Sunday, 18 March 2012

How to improve your vocabulary for writing without even trying...

I'm sure all the IELTS students around the world - and a lot of other people besides - would pay a vast amount of money for a magic pill which instantly made them better writers without having to sit for hours memorising words and phrases.  For that matter, I wish I could be the one to invent such a pill - I'm sure I'd never have to work again!

My recommended magic pill is, unfortunately, not an instant solution - but it is a way of improving your vocabulary for writing without too much conscious effort.  I'm sure some of you will be very disappointed when you hear what it is, or fed up with hearing me say it yet again....   Read, read, read, read, read.  Read on your laptop. Read on your smartphone.  Read on the bus.  Read at the bus stop.   Read fashion magazines, football websites, cereal boxes, Metro.  Read 'rubbish', read kids' books, read notices in shop windows - read ANYTHING.

Notice that I'm not telling you to read text books, IELTS revision guides, great works of English literature.  Of course I'd be absolutely delighted if you did read those things, but you don't need to do that to greatly improve your ability to write in English.

So why does reading for pleasure help your vocabulary (and your language development in general)?

  • You meet the words and phrases you half know, and just about understand them, maybe with a bit of difficulty.  The next time you see them - you understand them a bit more easily.  The next time - you don't even think about it - you know them already.  No sitting with a vocabulary list, memorising.  When you come to write something, that word or phrase is fresh in your mind.
  • You meet words and phrases you don't know at all, but you manage to work them out from the context, basically by making a good guess.  The next time you see them, you use the information from the new context to confirm your previous guess, or re-think your guess if it doesn't seem right.  You don't always need a dictionary.  Those words and phrases may not spring to mind when you next do your writing, but they are on the way to becoming part of your usable vocabulary.
  • You meet words and phrases you have no idea about, and it becomes obvious to you (again, from the context) that these might be important, and you can't work them out on your own, so you look them up in the dictionary and maybe make a note of the meaning in your vocabulary book (you do have a vocabulary book, don't you?!!).  Eventually these words and phrases will also become more familiar to you, and before too long they will be available to you for when you want to write or say something.

Of course this is only one way to improve your vocabulary, but it's the way which has worked for me in my learning of German.  

What works for you?  Let me know in the comments below..

PS I also think that this type of reading is a pain-free way to improve your grammar, but I'll come back to that another day.


  1. Talking of magic pills that could increase your academic development and intellectual progression without any effort whatsoever... This would be the obvious way to get smart quick - but a complete fantasy, like in the recent blockbuster film Limitless. Learning with Julia English is a more realistic alternative!

  2. I have been struggling to increasing my German vocabulary for some time and think you have made an excellent suggestion. Please continuing doing this the blog Julia English !!!

  3. I wish you were here to continue teaching me English!!! You are soooo good!!!!

  4. Agurtzane! I think about you so often! Please come back to Manchester soon - it would be great to see you again. You were the perfect student in a wonderful class :-D

  5. Hi Julia!I am really happy that u r teaching Advanced English for us!!!You are such a good lecturer and hard worker.

  6. That is the best way to learn the new vocabulary, I am so happy to be your student.

  7. This is brilliant advice! It REALLY is effective. I'm English and I have found this approach to be a great way to improve my Spanish. I find reading children's books the most enjoyable way. It is particularly good if you can find a book that you already know quite well in your first language, for example I got hold of the Harry Potter books in Spanish and because I could 'guess' what words might mean, it became such an easy and effortless way to improve my volcabulary.

  8. Thanks, Ally. It's a very good point to look for a book you already know in your mother tongue - I will remember to mention that to my students!

  9. Thanks for sharing this post.A great way to become a great English communicator is to learn how to increase English vocabulary.